OUR STORY / Swordfishtrombones - Hypergallery

OUR STORY / Swordfishtrombones

The digestion of many a meal in the Hypergallery childhood home was aided (or impeded, depending on your perspective) by the vaudeville growl of Tom Waits. The family was divided in opinion but those of us who would become the Hypergallery faction were firmly in the Waits fan corner. The Swordfishtrombones edition brings dreams to life and new friends in Berlin along the way.

It was an overwhelming thrill to answer the phone one day last year to a Berlin Gallerist who was keen on teaming up to publish a limited edition of the album artwork for Swordfishtrombones.

The story leading up to that golden moment really belongs to John Colton of the Browse Gallery, Berlin, whom we have to thank for making this truly beautiful edition of prints possible. The fascinating words below are all his.


Words by John Colton

Working as a Gallerist and curator in Berlin, I have produced and curated exhibitions, digging deep into the city’s subculture, uncovering some of its finest artists and building up a base for international photographers and artists through projects like Berlin Fotofestival THE BROWSE and through co-producing and curating major exhibitions. Naturally, I am always on the lookout for new ideas for good sharp exhibitions; visually exciting and firmly grounded in content.

In my research I came across Michael A. Russ’s works several times, and on my first visit to one of his exhibitions his work really impressed me. Michael’s ‘Tin Tones’ - hand coloured, grainy 35mm black and white film images, produced on silver gelatin prints and later on exquisite ALU Dibond plates - struck me as rough and bold approach to photography at a time when much of professional artistic photography relegated itself to the fine grains and limited grey scales connected to an idea of perfection. Michael broke these bounds, not only technically but in his subject matter too.

I had heard from mutual acquaintances that he appreciated my exhibitions but for quite a while we never met. That was until one rainy day, when I accidentally bumped into a friendly guy who apologised with a warm voice and a nice New York accent. This was on the street in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood ‘Chamissoplatz’ – at that time the place of residence for both of us.

We started chatting and it was not long before we established that we knew of one another from a distance. Shortly after, Michael came and visited me at the gallery, soon becoming a prominent and popular guest to the gallery’s openings and other events. Getting to know, and appreciate, one another led to a plan of cooperation for a major retrospective exhibition of his work of the last 40 years. Michael had been planning for this but wasn’t clear if he wanted to do it in Berlin, Paris or New York.

It was a huge undertaking, as the different phases of Michael’s photographic and artistic work could each fill an exhibition in itself. We talked about the different variations that the retrospective could hold. Some of the variations we explored focused on his art work for Tom Waits’ video In The Neighbourhood. This idea was narrowed down to concentrate on the initial collaboration between Russ and Waits: the album cover Swordfishtrombones which had inspired the making of In The Neighbourhood and encompassed some of the video’s later protagonists, selected by them both. 

Swordfishtrombones Photoshoot

Swordfishtrombones Photoshoot

Swordfishtrombones Photoshoot

Swordfishtrombones Photoshoot

Other elements of the retrospective included some of his more graphic and erotic and a wide range of cover photo designs for Vogue, Playboy, Rage Magazine and others, all of which bore the hallmarks of Michael’s unique approach to photography in the late 60s and early 70s: Colourful, heavy grained and raw, stressing the sensitive analog material almost to the fine point of breaking.

Michael’s work is often sequential in nature, which means several shots of the same motif or location must be hung together. This called for a large space in which to hold the retrospective, and the proposed locations in New York and Paris were not adequate. Happily, for us, this meant that Michael chose Berlin and opted to work with me and The Browse Gallery Berlin. The place in the heart of Berlin Kreuzberg seemed a perfect fit to show his photographic work, centered very much on edgy but glamorous subculture scenes and figures.

The exhibition Retrospective 06:00 AM … positive/negatives – photographs by Michael A. Russ, 1973 – 2013 had a resonance with an ecstatic Berlin audience, ripping into the Berlin art scene, taking no prisoners. A great success.

Michael’s work has always found great appreciation in Berlin, Germany and America and it has stood the test of time. He has kept himself busy with new tasks and projects. For years he has been urged by Tom Waits’ fans to make the much sought after cover image of Swordfishtrombones – a definitive turning point in Tom Waits’ music career – widely available for those who would wish to acquire the image.

Swordfishtrombones album cover photograph

Two years ago Michael started work on this project with us. In the end, it took on three different forms or variations of print. One of these variations is presented by Rob and Emily here at Hypergallery: a limited edition of 150 carefully reconstructed, signed and numbered prints from the original plate.

Swordfishtrombones print with Gallerist John Colton and photographer Michael A Russ

Like always - to produce something is one thing but getting it into the hands of those who would really appreciate it, is another. Finding and cooperating with the Hypergallery was a major step in reaching a substantial appreciative audience, well versed in the language of sound and vision.

The choice to work with Hypergallery was in no way a hard choice to make. Rob and Emily have done groundbreaking work by creating an entity which is committed to making the iconic album cover art images that truly moved millions widely available. They are also paying long overdue respect and public tribute to the artists behind those images, who cooperated with the music industry, and yet always retained their artistic independence and merit.

Being represented by Hypergallery, with its lineup of renowned international album cover artists, enables Michael to fulfil his long-term wish to present Tom Waits fans with the special treat they have sought after for so long.